Race and Decay (III – finally!)

I’m finally getting back to serious blogging.

I had concluded in my last serious post that Randolph Carter, protagonist of the Through the Gates of the Silver Key, is not quite right in the head, as far as his relation to the timeline is concerned. He is outside history…and outside conscious perception.

As de Marigny paused, old Mr. Phillips spoke a harsh, shrill voice.

“We can know of Randolph Carter’s wandering only what we dream. I have been to many strange places in dreams, and have heard many strange and significant things in Ulthar, beyond the River Skai. It does not appear that the parchment was needed, for certainly Carter reentered the world of his boyhood dreams, and is now a king in Ilek-Vad.”

And, a little later on –

For the rite of the silver key, as practiced by Randolph Carter in that black, haunted cave within a cave, did not prove unavailing. From the first gesture and syllable an aura of strange, awesome mutation was apparent – a sense of incalculable disturbance and confusion in time and space, yet one which held no hint of what we recognize as motion and duration. Imperceptibly, such things as age and location ceased to have any significance whatever. The day before, Randolph Carter had miraculously leaped a gulf of years. Now there was no distinction between boy and man. There was only the entity Randolph Carter, with a certain store of images which had lost all connection with terrestrial scenes and circumstances of acquisition. A moment before, there had been an inner cave with vague suggestions of a monstrous arch and gigantic sculptured hand on the farther wall. Now there was neither cave nor absence of cave; neither wall nor absence of wall. There was only a flux of impressions not so much visual as cerebral, amidst which the entity that was Randolph Carter experienced perceptions or registrations of all that his mind revolved on, yet without any clear consciousness of the way in which he received them. (emphasis mine)

The metaphysics of his dreaming are in perfect working order, and the silver key as the ultimate picks-all-locks in the dream world beyond is also the symbol of temporal confusion or chaos: as usual, Lovecraft takes the transcendent and connects it with the idea of chaos. And that chaos is not cataclysmic in any way and screeching for attention – it’s centered, held in the void, and absolutely immobile and reaching out from its immobility – a sense of incalculable disturbance and confusion in time and space, yet one which held no hint of what we recognize as motion and duration.

His idea of transcendence equals intellectual void, his “gods” – all these crew members of the Lovecraft pantheon – are blind idiot gods, and none more so than Azathoth, their overlord – the “mindless demon sultan at the center of infinity”, or “a sort of anti-god. That is not to say that he is a devil either. Rather he is cast as an idiot, whose pointless noodlings on the flute accidentally give rise to whole universes.”, as Joseph Morales has it here.

This has implications – there is no more use for purpose on any level. Not only that the “gods” available are not able to carry a telos through, the very idea of a structured life becomes ridiculous once you realize – not that there is no god (Lovecraft’s characters are imbued with that certainty, die-hard-materialist and would-like-to-be-positivists that they are), but no sense in which human understandings of time and history are in any way binding to the universe as a whole. And here, finally, the ominous concept of coscmicism has its appearance. Jeez, humans are SOOOO unimportant, get over it!

Carter is, consequently, no longer able to make a functional use of the difference between chronos and kairos, passing time and standing time (=moment). I draw the definition for the terms from an essay by Frank Kermode, that, for some reason, I have lying here only in a German translation by Frank Bartholomai, taken from the original context of –

Carey, Frances, ed. The Apocalypse and the Shape of Things to Come. London: British Museum Press, 1999.

– quote:

[…die]Distinktion ist eine, die wir mit unserem eigenen Puls fühlen können. Wir wissen um diesen Unterschied, da wir die meiste Zeit im chronos leben, aber auch die Momente des kairos wahrnehmen und sie wertschätzen, auch wenn ihre Anlässe trivial sein mögen.

in English:

The distinction is one we feel through own pulse. We know about the difference [between chronos and kairos], as for the most of the time we live in the chronos, yet we may also recognize and appreciate moments of kairos, be their occasions trivial.

Carter, like all Lovecraft narrators, doesn’t have that distinction in his pulse – if anything, his only option is the chronos: time just passes and passes by, traditions build up, but they never do for them. They can never get out of the mush of cosmic time streams avalanching by to their right and left – no way is open to them to get out of the chronos and into the kairos, to historicize and immanentize themselves – Ahistorical shadows out of time, to borrow from the title of another Lovecraft story. Therefore, it’s not only an impasse of Lovecraft’s prose style when his characters are hardly ever characterized and stuffed with details of livelihood that blush some blood into their faces – they simply don’t have the time, kairos, for that sort of character traits.

This is one side of the horror of indeterminacy, a point that was also talked about at the London event – the lack of kairos-time to become determinate.

The day before, Randolph Carter had miraculously leaped a gulf of years. Now there was no distinction between boy and man. There was only the entity Randolph Carter, with a certain store of images which had lost all connection with terrestrial scenes and circumstances of acquisition.

He goes even further, lays on some philosophical cream where it really fits (I’m so proud that my author is doing some ontology!) – and styles the Carter existence along the precepts of a Platonic universal –

All descended lines of beings of the finite dimensions, continued the waves, and all stages of growth in each one of these beings, are merely manifestations of one archetypal and eternal being in the space outside dimensions. Each local being – son, father, grandfather, and so on – and each stage of individual being – infant, child, boy, man – is merely one of the infinite phases of that same archetypal and eternal being, caused by a variation in the angle of the consciousness-plane which cuts it. Randolph Carter at all ages; Randolph Carter and all his ancestors, both human and pre-human, terrestrial and pre-terrestrial; all these were only phases of one ultimate, eternal “Carter” outside space and time – phantom projections differentiated only by the angle at which the plane of consciousness happened to cut the eternal archetype in each case.

And that is the point where the story finally turns into a philosophical parable. Note that he does not here invoke a creator god or any theistic substance behind the Carter manifestations – he qualifies that in the last sentence and says that there is a universal for Carter, and implicitly for other humans on the planet as well. Or not? That passasge collides interestingly also with his idea of heredity along the generation – for qualities as diverse as madness, idiocy, and, oh yeah, race.


Race and Decay (II.75)

So. I can see a row, endlessly long, of accusing faces that turn to me as I enter the room, only to whisper in their most hideous voices available…”Where have you been, master? What good do you think you do when you’re abandoning us like that? Why don’t you kill us off with a bottle of vodka or two? Do you hate us?”

They are my unthought thoughts, of course, and their presence cannot ever be rendered less painful – unless I take them up, one by one and in a row, to think them out, each single one of them, and then they resolve their painful, unborn existence into a consummated stage of arrival: “Plopp!”, they go, and “We are thought!”

I returned only in the early morning hours from the London event on April 26 that I mentioned in my previous posts. It was great. Really, it was. Unfortunately, I’m just crouching around with an exhaustion-plus-a-real-bad-cold – melange that’s keeping my productivity at a level of around 30%, or so. I was, therefore, glad to just sit there and listen to a few other insightful people’s insights on Lovecraft’s relation to critical theory and take a few inspirations with me…and some glimpses of Lovecraftian art that I saw in the process of being painted. And China Miéville’s insistence on the radical novelty of the tentacular per se in Lovecraft’s fiction, unheard of in, say, folk tales: but where do you take that novelty if not into the shallow waters of repressed sexuality clearing its way through a phallic symbol, the tentacle? Who knows? And, not least, I found it relevant to hear the artist Miéville say about the artist Lovecraft that, indeed, there are stories where his racism is packed into interesting casts, and others where this is just not the case. Racism and Aesthetics, that is, do not claw each others’ faces, and the appreciation of one must not be suspended while appreciating the other.

April 27 saw me hanging out at the British Museum a good deal, one of my favorite nerd places in the world: it always keeps me bumbling between utterly innocent and childlike joy at how zesty and rich the world can be if you collect it into a museum panorama, digging conciliatory rhetorics on all the filthy parts, and – utter bafflement at the grandeur of the museum’s center, the Great Court.

Race and Decay (II.5)

Lovecraft’s characters may not feel time passing, but I do, violently, fast, in a rush.

The London Lovecraft event, or in more precise terms – Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Theory – is drawing close enough for me to see myself packing the bags…but than can wait a little while longer. In his blog at Whispers from the Ghooric Zone, Justin Woodman has the grace to link to his talk for the event, appropriately but not very handily titled as ‘All dimensions dissolve in the absolute’: Magick, modernity and the horror of indetermination in Through the Gates of the Silver Key

which, of course, happens to be the story that I am trying to read here, under an angle that does not include theoretical concepts of chaos magick, on which, I confess, my knowledge is less than thorough. I’ll cover the event in this blog & will try to frame some of the inspiration it will, inevitably, be for me.


Randolph Carter, protagonist of the above story, set in 1928, is a time traveller, and as such he is not bound to the mores of historical people – unlike them, he cannot just look back, but go back –

It must have been these whispers plus Carter’s own statement to Parks and others that the queerly arabesqued silver key would help him unlock the gates of his lost boyhood – which caused a number of mystical students to declare that the missing man had actually doubled back on the trail of time and returned through forty-five years to that other October day in 1883 when he had stayed in the Snake Den as a small boy.

A number of mystical students – he’s a cause celebré in nerdish students circle, a fleeting existence travelling between this world and the world beyond, the dream land he’s hiking at great length in that most oddballish of Lovecraft stories, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath – one of the “few audacious, abhorred, and alien-souled men [that] have blasted through titan walls betwixt the world and the outside absolute.” Timelessness becomes a stigma – cherished, for all it is worth, and carried to its extremes, but still a stigma, producing an anthropic alien(-souled) other. The consequences are palpable – Lovecraft is setting up a tiny sphere of confidantes that Randolph Carter may navigate through at ease, peopled with those very few who are in the know that time may indeed be bent, not in a formulaically concrete sense bearing the label “Einstein” in some prominent place, but in such a way that supernatural states like immortality may be realized –

“Gentlemen, I say to you that Randolph Carter is not dead; that he is temporarily in an anomalous condition, but that within two or three months at the outside he will be able to appear in proper form and demand the custody of his estate. I am prepared to offer proof if necessary. Therefore I beg that you will adjourn this meeting for an indefinite period.”

Of course, it’s not called immortality proper – no need to bring in the transcendental to account for a thing as organically a part of Lovecraft’s materialist world as is time (and dream-) travel. Also, it is Carther himself who is pleading his cause here, hiding his face behind a mask.




Race and Decay (II)

This argument will take some time to build and I will do it step by careful step, taking all the time there is to do it. I will eventually get into argumentative waters that are more strictly pertinent to race and decay, no doubt about it – at least I seem to be aware of a fork in the road that will eventually get me there, and I plan on taking it.

I started with several hypothetical punchlines, in some logical relation to one another:

  • Decay and Apocalypse are related.
  • Apocalypse is for historical people only.
  • There is a self-protective way to step out of the timeline that will be a “remedy” against apocalypse. This is not possible to counter the danger of decay.

Well, I didn’t exactly start with these points, but I’m doing it now. I made mention of some beautiful and vehement – to me – passages from a David F. Wallace short story, and I’ll take now a closer look at Lovecraft: just where does time go in his stories? Nowhere exactly.

The best model of his concept of time (not of narrative time, to be precise – his stories proceed at a wholesame pace along the timeline) is offered in his 1933 short story Through the Gates of the Silver Key, not to be confused with its much shorter prequel The Silver Key. He collaborated on the later and longer story with fellow outré writer Edgar Hoffmann Price – grudgingly, after Price, a fan of Lovecraft’s, had composed a prequel to “The Silver Key”, pointing it at Lovecraft and duly awaiting the maitre’s corrections and expansion, which finally came.

The story is: wondrous. If you think of Lovecraft in terms of bileous, amorphous monster conglomerates – and like him for that – this story is a real change – it’s largely set in the dream world (and Lovecraft has a way to push his vocabulary to make the story not just dreamy, but sleepy, as well – in a positive way) of character headliner Randolph Carter, who Lovecraft employed in several, varied stories before that one. Carter is a master dreamer, and above all that means – that he is standing outside the timeline. Indeed, he’s travelling and manipulating it at will, in an act of almost burgeois escapism. Time, after all, is here co-terminous with enervating work routines, and rather than fighting and escaping them for real, he resorts to dreaming a way out.

Randolph Carter, who had all his life sought to escape from the tedium and limitations of waking reality in the beckoning vistas of dreams and fabled avenues of other dimensions, disappeared from the sight of man on the seventh of October, 1928, at the age of fifty-four.

He seems to have lot of experience in his field – a real master dreamer, that is –

His career had been a strange and lonely one, and there were those who inferred from his curious novels many episodes more bizarre than any in his recorded history.

Now he’s gone for good, gone to wherever – and his estate needs to be settled. His habits transpire. The New Orleans room chosen for the act of splitting the estate is outside the continuum, which may have the simple reason that Carter himself is actually present, in disguise, though the reader learns that only much later.

[…]while in a deep niche on one side there ticked a curious, coffin-shaped clock whose dial bore baffling hieroglyphs and whose four hands did not move in consonance with any time system known on this planet.

[The room is being maintenanced by an “incredibly aged Negro in somber livery”, which, now that I read it, reminds me of that insightful slide show that slate.com has on the “strange history of racist spokescharacters”]

Carter is an active time traveller (and, beware, Lovecraft is not nearly the first to use that concept – eve very thickly in mainstream literature you have that realized long before his time, for example in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol ( 1843 – one of these books that get me, letter-sensitive literary scholar, sobbing even before I come to the parts that are actually meant to be productive of tears), and there’s some of it in Mark Twaine’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (yeah, the title is..kind of…indicative of the fact), as well.

More on the story in my next post. I’m drooling for some sleep.

Race and Decay (I)

After sampling the treatment of race in Lovecraft scholarship – and giving a slight taste, I hope, of how the topic has been underestimated, systematically, I would now like to explore – why it has been underestimated, meaning I would like to establish that a clear understanding of Lovecraft’s use of the racial/alien other is of crucial importance in so far as it relates to his use of historical time.

In short: it’s all falling apart, and I’d like to look into just who is held responsible for that.

That does not yet induce in any way apocalypse – in fact, I will show that his prose does not observe a straight, logical catenation resting on decay (as a Gothic motif) before it proceeds to annihilation. My hypotheses for these next two chapters, Race and Decay & Race and Apocalypse, tightly locked together both, of the investigation ingrain topics, to fill the best-of bucket for a moment, like time, sex, and free will. I don’t think this will amount to a reading of his stories that fully historicizes his racism and makes it palpable as a historical phenomenon – that’s more one of the priorities it will be my pleasure to cope with in my dissertation. How do I say it? I would like to describe his racism in aesthetic terms before I describe it in historical terms, which is not to say that the one is necessarily more important to us today than the other – maybe I’m granting a concession to Lovecraft here, maybe I’m not stringent enough to first read his stories for their racism – that’s where he makes productive use of it, after all, where he puts it to work, and that also calls for the precaution that I do not plan on qualifying it in any way because it is “only” in his stories, quite on the contrary. It’s the stories that matter to current day reception, not that enormous bulk of 70.-80.000 letters in which his racism stands out as a particular eyesore among much other highly redundant trivia. The great letter-writing-automaton Lovecraft had better be evaluated via his 60 or so prose items…via the smallest and yet most substantial component of the great total corpus he plastered with life. And death, but I’m coming to that.


The point, that absolutely relevant point to hold onto (like a respirator’s mouth piece in a deep cave diving experience 2 miles beyond the surface) if you would like to experience apocalypse is this: time. As simple as that. Apocalypse doesn’t need fancy, tech-affine processes and devices to end the world, it doesn’t even need nuclear missiles cast into the core of the Sun, no large-scale-catastrophe volcanoe eruptions, no bacteriological bile waves flooding the bronchioles of good American citizens – all it needs is a little time and a sense in the apocalyptized that she/he is part of a timeline, in whatever way – cyclical or linear, or both – it is happening to move. I’m still stirring small ponds of water only – and refrain from introducing finer distinctions to splice up the eschaton, as in: eschatology, into finer shades.

Apocalypses are for historic persons only.

And Lovecraft’s characters are anything but.

At this point, I’ll take in a themed epigraph, taken from David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion, a 2004 prose collection that I really enjoyed reading. In a story titled “Good Old Neon”, the narrator (a persona of the author) describes his own death experience, in that I heard a fly buzz when I died-way of telling the story.

What exactly do you think you are? The millions and trillions of thoughts, memories, juxtapositions – even crazy ones like this, you’re thinking – that flash through your head and disappear? Some sum or remainder of these? Your history? Do you know how long it’s been since I told you I was a fraud? Do you remember you were looking at the RESPICEM watch hanging from the rearview and seeing the time, 9:17? What are you looking at right now? Coincidence? What if no time has passed at all?*

[then, in a copious and much longer footnote – and geez, how I love it when authors make the effort to annotate their fiction! Makes me feel like I never have to leave the sphere of academic annotation corpora, it’s so convenient!]

*[…]- how are you supposed to measure the rate at which time moves? One second per second? You can’t even talk about time flowing or moving without hitting up against paradox right away. So think for a second: What if there’s really no movement at all?

[and…back to the body of the text…]

The truth is you’ve already heard this. That this is what it’s like. That it’s what makes room for the universe inside you, all the endless inbent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices, the infinities you can never show another soul.

[Wallace, David Foster. Oblivion. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004. 178-179]

Wallace has a way of reminding me of Lovecraft in a very relieved way. In his The New Republic review of Wallace’s collection, James Woods squeezes the point for me –

There is really only one voice in this book, and it belongs to the writer whose weakest piece here, “Another Pioneer,” is a twenty-three-page shaggy-dog story whose only apparent raison d’être is to deploy the following words: “albinistic,” “melanistic,” “thanatophilic,” “ptotic,” “trypanosomic,” “hemean,” “omphalic,” “catastatic,” “malefic,” “extrorse,” “protasis.”

Not only that Wallace is a player with words (and the above would easily go as a mainstream critique of Lovecraft’s prose style), a wordherder holding exotic vocabulary valuables under the nose of the reader while at the same time he’s sneaking your unexpected horror into the lines, behind your back – as does Lovecraft, master of ragged punchlines & sneaky interline horror – he’s also here describing a time model that I find underlying in much of Lovecraft’s prose.

I would like to grab that model en route and see how I can use it: the narrator is proposing a sort of temporal matrix, in which time is no longer either linear or cyclical but rather – modular, coming piece by piece. This is posited & introduced, & prepared by the narrator to delude the paradoxes of the regular linear time stream – and his alternative has its scary implications: everyone is everything all of the time, at the same time. History exists only as humans have the ability to cut into the matrix and cover themselves with it, so that only selected insights – not everything, all of the time – are accessible to fellow humans: “It’s called free will, Sherlock.” (179)


I’ll continue that in my next post. Would that above matrix preclude the possibility of apocalypse? And how does it relate to Lovecraft?

Inebriate, with beer (and joy)

I’m not on any sort of tight schedule, but I still feel pressed to say a word on why I’ve come to lapse on that nice post rhythm I had earlier this month.

There’s a triumvirate of reasons.

The most pertinently academic of these is the fact that over here, finally, the semester has started, and I had some prep work to do for my seminar on the Apocalyptic in American literature & culture. The first class session has gone by, and it proved easier than I had thought to read the Revelation of St. John in class…well, parts of it, an apocalyptic best-of-edition that I had sampled to introduce some of the substantial motives and features – for example, John’s struggle for the “right” take on the text (there’s that nice passage at the very end of it where he threatens death to anyone who might interpret the text) and the constant numerological devices that he uses to cork some structure on the text.

Less pertinently, but still quite academic is that upcoming conference on Lovecraft’s weird realism, for which I’ll fly to London next week, and naturally there’s some reading work to do before that. The agenda item that goes under the title of “Lovecraft’s racism and ‘reactionary modernism” is of special interest here, but so are the other items on the program for the day.

Not at all pertinent (and I won’t make it a habit to clutter this strictly academic blog with things non-academic), but looming very large on my personal agenda for the week, was Tuesday evening, when my beloved football team, 1. FC Nürnberg, crowned its no less than triumphant campaign through the German cup with a whopping and utterly mortifiying 4:0-victory over archrivals SG Eintracht Frankfurt – a fantastic evening around the pitch and no doubt the greatest game I’ve seen in my fan career. It entailed inebriation by the buckets, a healthy overdose of joy, and the certainty that, indeed, we’ll go to Berlin to play the cup final – a climax to top of the climax that the current season is for the team.

Joy! And victory! Nevertheless, this weekend I’ll get back to the schedule for my approach to the Lovecraft and Race-expedition this weekend – this schedule here:

(- Race in Lovecraft scholarship)

– Race and Decay

– Race and Apocalypse

– Race and the Reader

My overview over Lovecraft scholarship finished for now, Race and Decay, the second point, is waiting for my attention. Forward then, into the darkness.

Race in Lovecraft Scholarship (V)

I used the four preceding posts to pitchfork the race topic and lift it into the limelight, like a price pig (or a price tofu ball). I hopefully was not too subliminal about observing that something is fundamentally wrong with a branch of scholarship that refuses to engage one of its central topics for sheer fright it might topple its delicate and fragile balance & claim to existence.

More so: if Lovecraft scholarship is ever to have the chance to enter academe – and it will – it must become possible to discuss and problematize every aspect of the man’s creative life without embarassment and reticence – every single aspect. That necessitates several steps, intertwined in such a way that the slightest lapse might collapse the whole operation…no, I’m just being tragic, when I’d better be detailed.

In his interesting, but not a little muddled and…eh…”associative” (for lack of a better word that expresses some chaos without implying outright contempt) study on The Philosophy of H.P. Lovecraft, Finnish philosopher-critic Timo Airaksinen has all of a Socratic benevolence when he claims, in his introduction, somewhere in the first few paragraphs of the book – since Lovecraft is nowhere the canon anyway, he finds, no harm is done when his scholarly cortege cultivates certain isolationist extravagances – a freak topic for freak scholars, so to speak. Hell, I should be glad that anyone reads him at all – isn’t that enough honor for a ghetto child like him? No way in hell.

Somewhat more to the point of his study, and in describing a private convention, a working policy, Airaksinen lays out a plan for reading the stories –

H.P. Lovecraft is a challenge to anyone who wants to write criticism about his work. Often he does not read well, which makes it necessary to approach him as a philosopher in disguise. When this happen, readers need to remind themselves of the postmodern fact that art is dead anyway, as aestheticians following Hegel and Arthur C. Danto say. (3)

I must have missed that funeral, merde – was that when they also buried history in one grand sweep?

He does not read well – therefore we must read him as philosopher, maybe in a row with Kant, Hegel, and other violators of their respective languages, who also do not read well, but still are read because their works are shaping intellectual history even now? Airaksinen is not very far from the mainlines of Lovecraft criticism here, just a little more extreme, in arguing that, really, it’s the philosophical substance that matters in Lovecraft, not the art – Joshi has devoted entire monographs to making the point, reading a philosophical depth into Lovecraft that only he sees.

What Airaksinen does is keep Lovecraft in an uneasy balance, floating at will between the the poles of philosophy and art (and, noteworthy enough, he’s reading in his study the stories, not the letters, where, if Joshi is to be believed, the most juice is hiding) – he still stands for art, but only a little, when it’s not so catchy to acknowledge. That halfway-covenant he has with critics like Airaksinen and Joshi is a pragmatic thing – which forever impedes an understanding of the whole Lovecraft phenomenon, and, simultaneosly, a moral judgment on the contents of his work.

Since his prose fiction is, to go by their understanding, no more than an outgrowth of his philosophical thinking, it must be judged by the rules of it, not by the rules of art – and, very conveniently, once you do that, listing predecessors like Häckel and Darwin to explain the meanders in his thoughts, his racism is utterly understandable, not to say – necessary (which is not to disdain either Häckel or Darwin). It fits into his austere mechanist-materialist understanding of the world and becomes a logical, coherently modulated ingredient. And it stands out only if you locate it in his art – Lovecraft was not a moron, of course, and certainly aware that he couldn’t make his stories the parading ground for his stark, racist mannerism that he so often his letters into.

That is the challenge: an account of his racism, or, abstract: an account of the ways in which he uses the supposed and actual racial other in his art, without sacrificing the integrity of it outright. Waugh suggests complicity as a cure here – and that, to me, suggests an obligation to sympathy (with Lovecraft, the person) we, the readers, are supposed to comply with. It doesn’t do anything for the reader, of course, but helps Lovecraft all the way – in a released embrace readers and author lock arms and cry out: Yes! We are guilty! All of us! Of Prejudices! Lovecraft had his, I have mine, we’re all in it together now!

Before I go on with that, I should finally get to the stories – and turn to his racism in action. I’ll postpone my ultimate how-to-guide on Lovecraft’s racism to a latter post…in the definite future.